01 April, 2009
Abbas Mirakhor, former executive director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Noureddine Krichene, economist at the IMF and former advisor at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, examine the issue.
In contrast to conventional finance which has periodically experienced crises, Islamic finance is considered as a stable financial system capable of promoting sustained growth of income and employment. Prohibiting interest, speculation, and debt trading, Islamic finance establishes one-to-one mapping of financial and real sectors of the economy. That is, it is based on real trade and production activities. The financial sector cannot expand beyond the real economy, and is immune to unbacked credit expansion and speculation that are characteristics of conventional finance and that have destabilized even the most sophisticated and complex financial systems.
Conventional finance is inherently unstable
The financial crisis that broke out in August 2007 is considered to be the worst in the post-war period. Representing the collapse of trillions of dollars of fictitious credit derivatives and the meltdown of uncontrolled credit growth, the scope of the crisis could reach unmanageable size. The crisis has shown that advanced financial systems are very vulnerable. Massive bankruptcies were avoided only at the cost of gigantic government bailouts. Capital markets are frozen. Consequent de-leveraging led in turn to an unexpected crash in stock markets, wiping out trillions of dollars in share values and in retirement investment accounts.
Economic uncertainty has never been as high. Has the crisis been correctly tackled or has it only been made worse? Could affected industrial countries grow with unsustainable public debt? In view of the incredibly high liquidity injection by major central banks, is money supply growth out of control? What will be the crisis’ impact on growth and employment? What will be its fiscal and inflationary cost? While precise answers are not possible, the present crisis has already slowed down economic growth in industrial countries, triggered food riots and energy protests in many vulnerable countries, increased unemployment and imposed extraordinary fiscal costs. Notwithstanding its devastating consequences, the crisis has made the quest for financial stability a pressing and fundamental issue in economics and finance. Such was the purpose of the G20 Summits in November 2008 and April 2009.
Financial instability has been a recurring phenomenon in contemporary economic history, affecting countries with varying intensity. The most enduring crisis was the Great Depression of 1929–33. Eminent economists who lived through the Great Depression fought very hard to establish a banking system capable of achieving and preserving financial stability. Their proposals became known as the Chicago Reform Plan, as they were elaborated by some members of the economic faculty of the University of Chicago. Although unaware of Islamic finance, their proposals were a natural restatement of some basic pillars of Islamic finance. The Chicago Plan basically divided the banking system into two components: a depository component with 100 per cent reserve requirement and an investment component with no money contracts and no interest payments, where deposits were considered as equity shares and were remunerated with dividends, and where assets’ and liabilities’ maturities were fully matched. Independently of this plan, Muslim economists reached the conclusion that if Islamic finance were to achieve stability, the banking system had to be organized along a similar ‘two-tier’ structure.
In view of its devastating effects, considerable effort has been devoted to explaining the causes of financial instability and to prescribe remedies that would reduce risk of deep contraction in output, large-scale unemployment, bankruptcies, dramatic fall in real incomes and social hardship. The classical economists attributed financial instability to money and credit expansion. They considered excessive credit expansion and contraction to be caused by deviation of the money interest rate from a non-observable natural interest rate which equilibrates real savings and investment in the economy. The natural rate of interest was defined in many ways; mainly, it was seen as a rate of profit, productivity of capital in roundabout production, or marginal efficiency of capital.
Irving Fisher, a prominent American economist of the Great Depression era, strongly argued that two dominant factors were responsible for each boom and depression: over-indebtedness in relation to equity, gold, or income which starts a boom, and deflation consisting of a fall in asset prices or a fall in the price level which starts a depression. He noted that over-investment and over-speculation were often important, but they would have far less serious results if they were not conducted with borrowed money. That is, over-indebtedness may reinforce over-investment and over-speculation.
Another American economist, Hyman Minsky, considered that conventional finance dominated by interest-based debt contracts is inherently unstable. This assertion is based on a construct known as Financial Instability Hypothesis (FIH), which posits that stability is inherently unsustainable. A fundamental characteristic of a conventional financial system, according to Minsky, is that it swings between robustness and fragility and these swings are an integral part of the process that generates business cycles. In the early 1990s, Minsky addressed financial innovation, which he considered to be evolving at a fast pace and to be driven by fierce competition among financial institutions for profits. In his view, the proliferation of innovations in deregulated capital markets would lead to a huge inverted credit pyramid based on a thin real basis, i.e. over-leverage. Any small fall in expected cash flows would send this pyramid crumbling.
Central banks’ cheap money policy is a key factor in a major financial crisis. Notably, the present crisis was caused by major central banks deliberately setting interest rates at record lows irrespective of risk. As a consequence, total credit expanded at an unsafe high rate of twelve per cent per year in the United States during 2001–08. This phenomenal credit growth was at the cost of creditworthiness and erosion of underwriting standards. George Soros wrote, ‘when money is free, the rational lender will keep on lending until there is no one else to lend to’. Rapidly expanding money and credit combined with an ideologically-based fierce de-regulation movement which began in the early 1980s in industrial economies and continued throughout the next two decades. It put at high risk the financial stability of these countries and, as the result of rapid financial globalisation, the rest of the world as well.
Islamic finance is inherently stable
The sources of financial instability in the conventional system, i.e. interest, unbacked credit, abundance of liquidity and highly leveraged financial transactions, as well as opportunities for speculation are by and large absent in an Islamic financial system basically because of absence of interest-based debt contracts and the 100 per cent reserve requirement that protects the nations’ payment system, thus ensuring the inherent stability of this system.
In the Quran and Sunnah, Islamic finance has always been conceived as existing within an institutional framework composed of rules of behaviour such as sanctity of contracts, strict rules of conduct for all market participants, including rules regarding distribution and redistribution of income, and wealth resulting from production and sale of goods and services which guarantee equitable and just distribution in the society as well as rules regarding governance, transparency, cooperation and social solidarity. In such a system, finance will be guided toward employment creating investment and wealth creation.
In Islamic finance there are no risk-free assets and all financial arrangements are based on risk and profit-and-loss sharing (PLS). Hence, all financial assets are contingent claims and there are no debt instruments with fixed or floating interest rates. Investment accounts could be conceived as non-speculative equity shares. The rate of return on financial assets is primarily determined by the return to the real sector, and therefore in a growing economy, Islamic banks will always experience net positive returns.
Financial intermediation in Islam is different from that in a conventional system. Banks do not contract interest bearing loans and do not create and destroy money. They participate directly in production and trade operations on a PLS basis. Banks do not act as simple lenders; they have to be directly involved in trade and investment operations, and assume direct ownership of real assets.
There is no credit creation out of thin air in Islamic finance. Under conventional fractional reserve banking, deposits at one bank can be instantaneously loaned out or used to purchase a financial asset and become
reserves and a basis for a new loan at a second bank. The credit multiplier is determined by the reserve requirement and could be high. In case of securitisation and over-leverage, the credit multiplier is theoretically infinite, leading to violent asset and product price fluctuations. Such a phenomenon does not exist in Islamic banking because of the 100 per cent reserve requirement. Deposits intended by their owner for investment purposes find their way directly as investment in trade and production activities to create new jobs as well as lead to additional flows of goods and services. New money flows arise from the proceeds of sales of goods and services. Money expansion is determined by the savings ratio in the economy and the money multiplier is very small, ensuring price stability. Investment is equal to savings, and aggregate supply of goods and services is always equal to aggregate demand. The liabilities of the financial institutions are covered by tangible real assets that are owned directly by the institution. They are not covered by financial assets. Risks for Islamic financial institutions are mitigated as they relate essentially to returns from investment operations and not to the capital of these institutions.
Architecturally, an Islamic banking system is composed of two tiers: amanah or safekeeping plus payments, transactions services, and transfer activities. In this tier, banks are required to keep 100 per cent reserves against deposits which remain highly liquid.
The second tier is composed of investment activities whereby deposits are longer-term savings and placed for the sole purpose of investment in trade, leasing, and productive activities in agriculture, industry, and services. The most important characteristic of this activity is that it is immune to unbacked expansion of credit. Returns to invested funds arise ex-post from the profits or losses of the operation, and are distributed to depositors as shareholders of equity capital.
The expansion of finance is fully determined by real growth in the economy and not by unstable speculative finance or money creation by financial institutions. Accordingly, an Islamic system would not be expected to experience deep boom and busts cycles. Moderate and brief booms and recession may be generated by good crops, productivity, technical change, or by adverse shocks. They cannot be generated by the financial system itself. Equilibrium in an Islamic economy thus structured will be stable and the rate of return to the financial sector will be fully aligned with the profit rate in the real sector of the economy.
Risks in Islamic finance consist of credit risk, market risk, displaced commercial risk, operational risk, and governance risk. While the individual financial institutions engaged in investment activities face these risks, in and of themselves these are not systemic and do not impact the overall stability of the financial system, as this system is immune to speculative mania, liquidity expansion, and instability of returns. The latter is due to the fact that there is no value or maturity mismatching between assets and liabilities of the institutions. If asset prices decline, so will the liabilities, unlike what happens in a system dominated by interest-based debt contracts.
Many types of financial transactions and instruments are excluded from Islamic finance, particularly interest rate-based bonds, securities, finance based on securitization of fictitious assets, speculative finance, hedge funds, and consumer finance that is not backed by real assets. In all of this type of finance, either the acquired assets are financial papers, or loans that are not backed by real assets and do not contribute to generate real activity and income.
In Islamic finance, the central bank has the sole monopoly for creating money. An interest rate cannot be used as a policy instrument. The central bank does not refinance banks as in conventional banking. The central bank has to apply a quantitative ceiling on money aggregates. Such policy when and where implemented has been effective in maintaining financial stability and precluding speculative booms and inflation. Money injection occurs through the central bank buying foreign exchange, gold, or non-interest bearing government debt, possibly indexed to gold, a commodities basket, or a portfolio of real assets created by the government.
History is replete with episodes of instability of the conventional financial system. Prominent economists have argued that such a system is inherently unstable and prone to severe financial crisis. They have considered the interest rate to be a cause of large fluctuations in asset and commodity prices, a source of financial instability and cumulative inflation, and detrimental to long-term economic growth. They have called for a separation of deposit and investment banking.
Islamic finance prohibits interest and speculation and engages directly in trade and investment operations. Unbacked expansion of credit is preempted, and banks cannot initiate and accentuate a speculative process. Credit is based on real savings. Hoarding for the sake of earning interest does not take place. Savings can only earn a return if directly invested in employment creating activities. Not only does hoarding earn no monetary reward, there is also a direct disincentive for doing so since whatever is hoarded is subject to zakat which will continuously erode its base. In such a system, no excess purchasing power can be created by a stroke of the pen. Money flows arise from sales of goods and services and transit through the banking system for payments or investment purposes. Islamic banks do not compete to issue loans to borrowers for liability management purposes arising from mismatched maturities between assets and liabilities; they compete only for real investment opportunities; their resources are reinvested in real activities. Given the stability of its financial system and resilience to monetary shocks, an Islamic economic system would experience sustained economic growth and avoid detrimental impacts on social justice since inflation cannot be used to tax creditors and wage earners in favour of debtors and speculators. Although reforms of the conventional system along the lines comparable to Islamic finance system were strongly advocated by some leading economists in the 1930s in the aftermath of the Great Depression, these reforms were not fully implemented. The intensity of recent financial instability has renewed calls for such reforms which many consider as the only path in the quest for stability. The chart below contrasts distinctive features of conventional and Islamic finance.